Sunday, 8 December 2013

Reflections on ... The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1961)

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“Tennessee Williams wanted the lead in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone to go to Katherine Hepburn, after seeing her performance as the scheming mother in Suddenly Last Summer. But Hepburn, who resented the way her advancing years had been treated in that film, had no intention of inviting comparison between herself and the lonely middle-aged actress who buys the attentions of a male hustler. Although the public was intrigued by rumors of an off-screen liaison between the film’s subsequent stars, Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty, Spring was a disappointment at the box office. It seems that audiences were uncomfortable with the film’s depressing theme, and with the painful similarities between the lives of Vivien Leigh and the mentally unstable Mrs Stone.”
Penny Stalling. Flesh and Fantasy (1978)

If The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (the 1961 film adaptation of the Tennessee Williams novel) is remembered at all today, it’s as a dusty and obscure minor footnote to the career of its leading lady Vivien Leigh (it would be her penultimate film; Leigh died of tuberculosis aged 53 in 1967). It seemingly never crops up on TV and is unavailable on DVD in the UK. As a fan of both Leigh and Williams (and intrigued by Spring’s sordid subject matter!), I had long been intrigued by this curiosity. When the British Film Institute in London held a retrospective season commemorating the 100th anniversary of Leigh’s birth in November 2013, I finally got to see it.  

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/ Make mine a Negroni: Vivien Leigh in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone /

It certainly feels like a “lost” film. The BFI always sources the best quality prints they can – and this one frequently looked pretty scratchy and moth-eaten. In 1961 the film suffered by comparison with Leigh and Williams’ earlier triumphant collaboration on A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), for which she won her second Academy Award, and it was neither a critical or commercial success. Seeing it in 2013 for the first time, I would argue The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone is ripe for a more generous reappraisal. Williams himself rated it highly, saying, “I think that film is a poem” in his 1972 memoirs (but then he also loved the catastrophic 1968 Liz Taylor-Richard Burtonmega bomb Boom!). Call me perverse, but I find Spring infinitely more enjoyable than the more highly regarded Streetcar.

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/ Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone /

The film is flawed but fascinating. It seethes with weird hybrid tensions. With its woman-of-a-certain age in peril heroine, Spring works as a lush old-fashioned conventional melodramatic “woman’s picture” awash with romantic masochism, stoical suffering and deluxe production values (the costumes, sets and Roman setting are pure eye candy). But it also plumbs the depths of some spicy lurid subject matter: self-destruction, sexual humiliation and glittering but empty hedonism in a milieu of pimps and prostitutes in Rome’s La Dolce Vita international cafe society. (Some of Spring’s nightclub and party scenes, with their grotesque celebrants, can be favorably compared to the earlier Fellini film). Intriguingly for modern audiences, the film is shot through with a definite queer sensibility (it’s surprisingly clear that those seeking firm-bodied Roman hustlers on the Spanish Steps are just as likely to be male as well as female; the role of Mrs Stone would probably make even more sense as an older gay man pining for his younger thug lover). It’s also convincingly permeated by a sense of real fatalistic despair almost from the very start (onscreen Leigh’s depression is almost tangible). And in its tense, shocking final moments, Spring packs the dread of a horror film.



/ The original theatrical trailer for The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone /

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/ Leigh, draped in haute couture by Balmain /

Leigh portrays the titular Mrs Karen Stone – a recently widowed and affluent middle-aged American actress adrift in Rome.  Rich, lonely and vulnerable, Stone is easy prey for heartless gigolo Paolo (Warren Beatty) and his malevolent female pimp The Contessa (Lotte Lenya). Leigh is only 47 here but it has to be said she seems dramatically older. (And in the context of the story, the age of 47 seems to represent something significantly older than it does in 2013). Draped in haute couture by Balmain (shame about the gruesomely unflattering blonde wigs), she is still waveringly beautiful but careworn, ravaged and fragile. (Late-period Leigh’s deep bass voice may come as a surprise; it was strikingly lower by the 1960s after years of poor health and heavy smoking). 

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/ Ladylike and demure - but tortured /

Leigh is so perfect for the role, it's hard to believe it wasn't conceived with her in mind or that she wasn't the original choice. Her thin-skinned and delicate performance is a portrait of someone deeply wounded but striving to maintain a haughty dignity and detached froideur (she boosts her confidence and self-soothes with vice, chain-smoking and drinking Negroni cocktails).  And yet Leigh had a tough core: she was a profoundly unsentimental actress.  Whether as Scarlett O’Hara, Blanche Dubois or the complex and troubled Karen Stone, she never solicits the audience’s sympathy. Considering Spring is her second last film, Leigh ended her movie career on a high. My favorite moments of Leigh’s performance here are probably the simplest: the segments of Stone drifting aimlessly alone through Roman streets like a melancholy somnambulist, severely-etched  and alienated in her ladylike suits, white gloves and cat’s eye sunglasses, are haunting. Thank God Katherine Hepburn didn't accept the role. 

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/ Like I said, the film has a genuinely queer sensibility: Warren Beatty wears very tight pants throughout and gets more than one lingering, admiring ass shot /

The film’s weakest link is callow young Warren Beatty, whose thick comedy Italian accent is frankly awful (his acting would improve considerably by Bonnie and Clyde in 1967). Why not cast an actual Italian actor as Paolo? The dark, swarthy and sensual Franco Citti had already smoldered playing sexy low-life pimps in two Pier Paolo Pasolini films, Accattone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962).  Or perhaps the French art cinema heartthrob Alain Delon, who at least was Continental - and by all accounts in real life every bit as predatory and amoral as Paolo! LuchinoVisconti’s bisexual protégé would have invested the part with some of the icy sociopathic menace he brought to Plein Soleil (1960). (In fact Delon had been considered for the role – but Leigh rejected him as “too pretty.” Perhaps she didn't want to share close-ups with him. Who could blame her not wanting to be compared to young Delon?).

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/ Don't Smoke in Bed: Two ultra-sultry and homoerotic portraits of very young Delon by John S Barrington, a pioneer of gay beefcake / physique photography. Delon could have played the role of Paolo in his sleep. (Apparently Delon tried to suppress these photos later on. Read the biography Physique: The Life of John S Barrington by my friend, journalist and author Rupert Smith)

It could be argued the film is well and truly stolen from both Leigh and Beatty by the frankly amazing Lotte Lenya, nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as the toxic Contessa (two years later she would play Rosa Klebb in the James Bond film From Russia with Love – her most famous movie role). The 63-year old Austrian actress and chanteuse (the definitive interpreter of her husband Kurt Weill’s songs, name-checked in the English lyrics to “Mack the Knife”) is utterly compelling: she practically purrs with smiling, serene evil. I literally gasped when she calls Stone a “chicken hawk” (a very John Waters moment. I told you this was a queer film). And don’t even get me started on how much I love The Contessa’s apartment. All the sets in Spring are amazing, but her flat – shared with a menagerie of cats - is truly brothel-like, a tart’s boudoir of crimson velvet furniture, flocked wallpaper and gilt.

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/ Stirring up trouble: Lotte Lenya as the sinister Contessa. I love her blood-red and gold apartment /

As well as La Dolce Vita, for me Spring echoes Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) in its themes of sexual humiliation, cruelty and death, and Bonjour Tristesse (1958) for the joyless European jet set debauchery and luxurious settings. The story is full of Tennessee Williams’ essential recurring preoccupations:  loneliness, fear of aging, compassion for human fragility, the need to live with illusions and occupations especially the concept of the beautiful young gigolo doubling as an angel of death (See also: Boom!).

One of Spring’s other intriguing themes is American new world naivety versus European old world decadence. During a heated argument, Paolo spits at Stone, “Rome is 3000 years old. You’re what – fifty?” Later, when someone describes Stone as “a great lady”, The Contessa is contemptuous, arguing there is "no such thing as great American lady" because great ladies do not occur in country less than two hundred years old. Stone is out of her depth in Italy – against the corrupt and damaged likes of Paolo and The Contessa, she doesn't stand a chance.

No spoilers, but Spring also raises the possibility Stone has a death wish or unacknowledged suicidal impulse, subliminally motivating her. Aiming to shock and offend her, Paolo taunts she’ll be discovered dead in bed with her throat slit ear-to-ear by a gigolo three or four years from now. Stone merely laughs “a cut throat three or four years from now would be a convenience”. In a weird encounter on the street with some nosy American acquaintances Stone lies to them that she’s been diagnosed with a fatal illness so that they won’t bother her anymore. In the context of the film, this is fatalistic – she’s sealing her own fate. Even more disturbingly, throughout the film Stone is literally pursued by death – stalked by a completely silent, gauntly handsome angel of death street urchin hustler who at first might even exist only in her imagination. (He’s a very poetic Williams-ian touch: with his wraith-like cheekbones he looks like a Giacometti sculpture come to life and is arguably more attractive than Beatty).  His recurring presence foreshadows certain doom.

“A glamorous world – a strange romance!” the original theatrical trailer to The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone tantalizingly promised. The film offers a kinky glimpse of sex and dying in high society, viewed through a realm of genteel cocktail parties and gold cigarette cases.


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/ Ominous: Karen Stone, stalked by death /

Further reading:

This great blog has some beautiful screen shots of The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone's lavish sets and costumes

My reflections on another Tennessee Williams adaptation, the notorious Boom! (1968)

The screenplay for The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone was adapted by Gavin Lambert (1924-2005).  During the making of the film, Vivien Leigh was freshly divorced from Laurence Olivier and struggling with mental illness - and yet was consistently elegant and professional throughout. Read his sympathetic and insightful account of working Leigh here. 

/ "Oh show me the me way to the next pretty boy ...": The incomparable Lotte Lenya (in 1962) singing us out with Kurt Weill's "Alabama Song"

 


7 comments:

  1. I LOVE this movie! Fortunately it's on DVD here in the USA—and the print used for the transfer looks great. Can you imagine Katharine Hepburn rolling around under the covers with a sexy young Italian gigolo? She pairs nicely with an older Italian gentleman in "Summertime" (1955), but would have been all wrong for this part. Vivien Leigh nails it. And you nailed it too with your awesome review.

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  2. Thanks, Alex! I seriously love this film, too! On reflection, I’ve seen most of the key film adaptations of Tennessee Williams’ works like Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer, The Fugitive Kind – and I genuinely like Roman Spring best. Maybe because it’s adapted from a novel rather than a play, it never feels stage-bound or theatrical. I added a new link to a nice essay by screenwriter Gavin Lambert reflecting on working with Vivien Leigh on the film – it’s pretty moving, her stoicism and poise. Did you see the Helen Mirren re-make from a few years ago? I’d be intrigued to see that to compare it against.

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  3. Great comments. I tackled MRS STONE myself in my own blog (http://osullivan60.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/those-other-tennessee-williams.html) - as well as other Vivien Leigh roles - the BFI also finally got a scratchy print of THE DEEP BLUE SEA (I already had a copy of it). THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS STONE on dvd was included in that Tennessee Williams boxset issued here in the UK some years ago (along with STREETCAR, NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF) - an essential purchase at the time. I love MRS STONE for its early 60s La Dolce Vita milieu, plus of course Lotte and Coral Brown. The other interesting person here is young British actor Jeremy Spenser as the guy she throws down the keys to, he seemed to vanish after acting with Hepburn in SUMMERTIME, Monroe & Oliver in THE PRINCE & THE SHOWGIRL and Vivien here.
    I like the Barrington pictures of the young Delon - before he went into movies - taken at Cannes in 1957 - that rumpled bed look! We like Delon and PLEIN SOLEIL a lot too on my blog, as per the labels. I like Rupert Smith's books too, the one on Barrington is essential!

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  4. What an utterly fabulous review. Thanks for this.

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  5. Great review of a forgotten classic--was recently on TCM and loved it as much as you do. Vivien Leigh, Lotte Lenya and the feel and cinematography of Rome are divine...and so is Warren Beatty's youthful beauty, though I like your suggestion that Delon would have played it better. The Italian accent is embarrassing, the only wrong note.
    I love your blog!
    -Chris

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  6. Very interesting post. I have always loved "Roman Spring". The novel and the film. Jose Quintero's picture was really a poem. And it's frightening how close Vivien was to the character at the beginning of the 60's. She interrupted the movie to go to Atlanta for a revival of GWTW. And tried a reunion with Olivier, to save their marriage. I totally agree Vivien Leigh never was trying to get sympathy for her characters. That was one very touching quality in her life. She spoke her own mind and had a clear and very sharp vision on things.

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  7. I love this review (although I disagree that the film is an 'obscure and dusty footnote' in VL's career - at least it shouldn't be). I am no fan of Tennessee Williams, but I like this very much. Although I never thought Beatty was perfect for the role, I didn't find his (admittedly iffy) accent distracting enough to really interfere with my enjoyment of the film. What "ruined" his Paolo (and the film) in my mind is having read that Delon could have made it. Now I cannot get the idea out of my mind! I can SEE Delon in this; he would have been perfect. Not just because he would have been slightly more "authentic" in terms of ethnicity and accent, but because he really *is* a great actor. He was wonderful in a very similar role in the (otherwise ridiculous) Yellow Rolls-Royce, opposite Beatty's sister, Shirley McLaine. (My main sorrow regarding Delon is The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Minelli reportedly *begged* the producers to cast Delon, but no, they went with Glenn Ford.)

    BTW, I also like the TV version (2003), although I find the sex scenes unnecessary - "overkill" in terms of sordidness, if you will.
    Mirren's Karen is considerably different to Vivien's: much more overtly cynical. (It doesn't make her interpretation better, just different.)
    Martinez's Paolo is an odd one: I never can quite make up my mind whether he really is such a bad actor (in this film, at least), or is he intentionally making Paolo such a preposterously affected nitwit. (Anyway, he proves that being French doesn't necessarily make one's Italian accent any better than an American's.)
    What bothers me the most, though, is - incredibly, unexpectedly - Anne Bancroft's performance. At times it works, but there are many instances where she is just terrible. (Compare her "What a pity" line to Lotte Lenya's rendition of the same line.)
    If I had to choose, though, I would choose the 1961 version as my favourite. Maybe it's for purely aesthetic reasons (the photography is gorgeous although, predictably, far less "realistic" than the 2003 version).
    But, again, picturing Delon in it - and then having to watch Beatty - pretty much ruined it for me. Thank you very much. ;)

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